I’ve set myself the task of writing something here every day – or every weekday at least. The challenge of course – as with most things on the internet – is content. I have to find something interesting to say every day, and something interesting to other people. Because, of course, whatever I say must be interesting, challenging, witty, incisive and intelligent. And, ego and vanity aside, whatever I say should be worth other peoples’ time to read.
Some years ago I went on a Buddhist retreat over Christmas. I’d still recommend it as a good way to spend Christmas or New Year. I was one of the few people I knew that year who lost weight. On retreat we meditated and prepared food and walked and slept and listened to stories about the Buddha and cleaned the retreat centre and were generally simple and spiritual and vegan.
By far the most interesting part of it, for me, was the 36 hours we spent in silence. Eating in communal silence is simple enough. You tend to take more care of people: you check to see if they need the salt or the pepper and if you are stuck at the wrong end of the table from the egg-free salad dressing, you just touch your neighbour gently on her arm to attract her attention and point. Sharing chores becomes calm and companionable when you communicate softy with touch and with sign language. It’s all very pleasant.
The really interesting thing, however, is what happens when you don’t have to socialise; when you don’t have to babble about what you are doing, or ask friendly questions, or empathise with a tale of woe, or listen to someone else’s anecdotes. You don’t have to scrabble around to fill those social silences. The space that you are in becomes physically companianable, and mentally or emotionally stress-free.
Of course, the silence can have side-effects. All the stuff you’ve been drowning out, not saying, denying, suddenly has a space to come out in. You may break down in tears because you are not clamping down on whatever it is that wants to cry out.
But the most interesting thing is that words suddenly have value. You don’t squander them on social-oil and small-talk. The odd thing about those 36 hours of silence, was how much more gentle and honest the silent signals were, when the noise of words did not get in the way.